VCF East X: The Quarternet Steering Committee

Today was the first day of the Vintage Computer Festival East X. As is the tradition, the first day was packed with talks and classes about various retrocomputing ephemera, with this year featuring a great talk from [David Riley] about 8-bit computer music, a class on system architecture from our own [Bil Herd] (video coming soon), and a talk about vintage teletypes. One of these talks was about creating new hardware: [Jim Brain]’s steering committee on a networking solution for vintage microcontrollers. It’s called Quarternet: a two-bit solution for an eight bit world.

While minicomputers are easily networkable, designed around multi-user operating systems, and have the hardware for a lot of networking hardware, 8-bit micros are the exact opposite. That doesn’t mean 8-bitters don’t have networking; you can get an Ethernet cart for a C64, and just about everything can connect to a BBS. [Jim]’s talk was about whittling down the use cases for the Quarternet to something that could be implemented easily, but still give the most capability.

During the talk, the audience settled on using a serial connection from the micro to the outside world; this makes sense, as everything has a serial port. A ‘lightweight API’ was suggested to take up the software side of the problem, but there wasn’t much agreement over what that API would actually do.

[Jim]’s idea is for a box that plugs into the serial port of any old microcomputer and would connect to the Internet somehow. Ethernet, WiFi, or even a modem isn’t out of the question here. That takes care of connecting to the Internet, but there’s also the question of the cooler side of networking – network drives, file sharing, and the like.

For this, [Jim] is imagining a box with a serial port on one end, and a network port on the other. In the middle would be a cartridge slot for any hardware imaginable. If you want to plug in an Apple II disk drive, just insert the right cartridge and you’re good to go. If you need network access to a Commodore 1541 drive, just insert another cartridge, and it’ll just work.

It’s an interesting idea, but [Jim] is really interested in getting even more feedback for a networking system for old microcomputers. If you have any ideas, leave a note for him in the comments.

17 thoughts on “VCF East X: The Quarternet Steering Committee

  1. Its gotta have one of those 5 dollar wifi modules in it SOMEHOW, cause they are cheap and add the needed “ethernet” connections without much space or power required. Heck they already talk via serial connections, so thats a step in the right direction there!

  2. That’s basically the ESP8266 description…

    What could be interesting would be looking at the first implementations of token ring and base10T with 80286 computers, and how they were ported to a serial topology

    Some simple abstraction layers can easily be made out of cheap programmable logic where you could even map address space thousand miles away, and swap the mappings using custom registers

    That would actually be very elegant and provide the best flexibility, allowing users to share part of their silicon to others online…

    1. You can easily translate from one serial protocol to another with a really cheap µC so bridging a topology to another will not be a limiting factor… an ethernet phy like the ENC28J60 from Microchip will be a good choice for that kind of thing

    2. I did implemented once an SPI port for MSX (Z80 based microcomputer). Each write to a given I/O port loaded a latch and started a counter that clocked the shift register without the invervention of the Z80. It allowed me do send or receive data over the SPI port as fast as the Z80 could acess I/O or even RAM.

      It was part of a SD/MMC interface.

  3. Lantronix UDS-10 was already mentioned and similar functionality would likely be the baseline (AT comand set/RS-232). But there may be both software and hardware use cases it does not address. Would be nice to have an open and extensible platform alternative.

  4. Did anyone else who went get upset that the FPGA retrocomputing guy didn’t show? I guess he got sick or something but I was really looking forward to that. As consolation I got to learn about some pretty cool retro music stuff.

  5. I don’t think anyone recorded the sessions I led or attended. I can say the sessions were very interesting. I was surprised at how many folks attended my session (Vintage meets microcontrollers).Next year a better presentation with working microcontrollers connected to a working vintage computer (all for the want of a fuse that blew that morning).

    On Quarternet, I’m looking at the ESP family as the quarter net device. I think it might become the device we need but I’m not speaking for the group. There are many issues that we need to deal with and define. I think you’ll find that it’s difficult to define. Something that works with the Atari family might not work with a Ohio Scientific. A great deal of thought needs to be given for this to work. There are many layers of the OSI network stack that needs to be defined.

  6. Should we resurrect IPX? With a proper router, you can connect a bunch of old 8-bit machines talking IPX. Anyway, IPX could be handled by a really simple and low-cost controller (hardware) if you want the vintage computer to manage modem-like streams.

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